Saturday, November 15, 2008

Scotty's Egypt

In Scotty's Egypt, there is a fire station, a hotel, a factory where people work, a garage and a sea food restaurant.

The hotel has a pool and a diving board (with ladder) and the town has a lake with a dock to stand on to fish and seaweed, because that is where the fish hide. It has a soccer field, roads that curve, on bridge and two trees.

Of course it has pyramids made from beach blocks found on the beach of Lake Erie. But the cool part is the mountains you can see in the distance. That's Arizona. Two smoke stacks made from old bottle necks, buildings of odd legos and roades made from construction paper. The factory is a happy dancing place with a parking lot and a sign that says work, work. Somehow, since Ws are Ms in Scotty's Egypt, this doesn't sound as bossy as one might think.

Considering all Scotty got from Egypt is a T shirt, I think his five-year-old vision is pretty comprehensive.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Words on Walls

In Egypt the hieroglyphics are like, everywhere. I mean the Ancient Egyptians had a lot to say. After someone stumbled on the Rosetta Stone, 20th century scholars could translate these pictures into Greek. Since I can’t read hieroglyphics or Greek, I took to making up my own translations and decided each of these series of pictures could be read like a poem. And everyone knows a poem is open to interpretation, right?

Like, I think this one is advocating fitness. Read from left to right, you want to lay off the punch bowl, walk, read, eat like a bird, play a little golf, climb some mountains, eat like a bird and swim with the ducks. Watch out for yo yo dieting. A precursor to the women’s magazine section in the check out line. In fact, considering all the food stuffs pictured on the walls, this poem fits right in.

Although, doubtful the ancients needed a prescribed workout routine since their favorite pastime in the off season was rolling 1-2 ton blocks of limestone and granite up steep slopes of mud brick to insane heights and righting obelisks the size and weight of four story buildings with ropes, pulleys -- all powered by sweat.

After taking roughly 4000 pictures of these pre-phonemic awareness context clues, I noticed that none appeared to be about hearts or romance. This one seems to document the fact that we need bees to pollunate the grain. Important reminder to a modern age.

Apparently those sentiments didn’t begin to be recorded until the Greeks. Despite what their hearts may have been telling them, the Ancient Egyptian royalty were seriously into marrying their brothers, sisters and first cousins, thereby compounding sibling rivalry with marital discord. Just imagine the slammed 48 foot doors caused by those arrangements.

In fact the only hearts we saw carved in stone (this one an enhanced image of graffiti on the pyramids) were from later visitors. Since there have been thousands of years of visitors, the graffiti is ubiquitous and varied. The first to deface some of the tombs were succeeding monarchs who took exception to their followers worshiping their predecessors, so they chipped away at their faces. After the decline, between 300-600AD the Christians lived in many of these tombs and temples, hiding out from the Romans, leaving their graffiti, smoke damage and hook holes in and on the walls. Apparently some of the faces of the gods freaked them out so they chipped their eyes out so they could rest easier. Imagine kids trying to get to sleep with Horus the Falcon Head hovering.

Sand, as anyone who has ever been to the beach can attest, goes EVERYwhere. In your bed, your shoes, your knickers and your suitcase. Living here could not have been pleasant. Somewhere along the line, folks stopped keeping house and the tombs got so filled up with sand that they disappeared. Then some time in the 18th century, an adventurer tripped over the capital of a forty foot column thinking it was a rock (imagine his surprise) and as soon as he started digging, he started with the graffiti all over again. People do love to leave their marks on walls, an early version of self publishing.

Fact is, today if groundskeepers didn’t sweep these awe inspiring places out on a regular basis, in 50 years they’d be all buried again. Good for the tombs, bad for tourism, which now accounts for 60% of the income of the entire country.

While the Egyptians were inventing calendars, compasses and keystones, the Europeans were still wrapping themselves in animal skins (according to my social studies texts) and living in homes dug in the ground. The advanced achievements of this society are beyond amazing and it is a crime that so many of the images have been defaced. But left behind are stories written in their mysterious language in the forms of little heads, staffs, squiggles, ducks, serpents, bees and you name it.

More than anything else I saw in Egypt, these spoke to me, even if I can't be sure exactly what they are saying.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Cruising the Nile

In the summers as a kid, I went to Bible school. Weeks at a time. One summer in particular, I went to Bible school five times, once at Granny’s, at my maternal grandmother’s, at Aunt Sophie’s and at home. Twice. It was an amazing race from one Methodist to the next Presbyterian church. An entire summer of cutting out little pictures of baby Moses and pasting him in the green construction paper rushes.

This adventure was offered to me no doubt because school was out, I was bored, and Bible school was cheaper than a baby sitter or anger management classes for mom. In my teen years I sang in three choirs for the express purpose of getting away from the parents who had parked me in Bible school all those summer. There I learned the fourth and fifth verses of countless hymns, how to construct a speech with an intro, three ideas, and a conclusion (Dr, Kirkman was a master at the 5 paragraph theme) and how to squint my eyes while looking at the stained glass until the colors began to kaleidoscope in mad circles that made me dizzy. An early lesson in how and what kids take away from learning opportunities.

Back to Moses. Every year of Sunday or Bible school kicked off with the original water baby, Moses, afloat in rushes. So, today, as we cruise down the Nile with cattle, donkeys, and farmers in fluid blue robes that catch the morning breeze it is as if those cartoonish pictures from our Bible school newsprint books have come to life. Unlike the pictures of the North Pole workshop and Dino, the Flintstones’ pet dinosaur, turns out that this place – a river with rushes and desert on either side – is real.

And let me tell you, in the countryside along side the Nile, some things haven't changed. Donkeys are still used for transportation, rice paddies are being tended by hand, fishermen are slapping the waters with sticks to chase fish into nets and laundry is still being washed by hand. And though the water is more polluted, the floods have been contained and the crocodiles are snatching fewer humans, which is change we can all believe in.

I never received or sought much religious instruction beyond the paste pot and memorized verses and hymns, this ancient, generous river seems sacred to me – a path of life that has enriched the land and people for all time.

Traveling through Egypt with Rambo

Rambo! The vendors lingering in doorways, trying to get us to stop to look at their products (all free, best price, come see, one minute) call out to Michael as we walk down the street. Rambo! Compared to most of the stick figure Nubians, he is quite bulky in the shoulders. People in the countryside south (Up River) of Cairo are thin – like they have not been sitting around after dinner watching TV, eating potato chips and sucking down sodas.

a. sodas are expensive
b. ditto on the chips
c. few TVs
d. maybe no dinner

It is a dusty struggle for day to day necessities here, the vendors are more urgent, the horses and donkeys skeletal, the clothing less colorful.

One night our cruise docked in a village called Esna, where at 9:30PM we are the only westerners on the dirty, rocky road. We were immediately approached by offers for carriage rides and requests to buy coca cola, scarf please, maybe later, on your way back.

A small, dark girl with large eyes comes up to me to try and sell me a scarf stretched across her arm. “La shakra,” I say, “No, thank you.” She continues to walk with us, barefoot on the rocky, littered road. When she puts the scarf back on her head I realize she has tried to sell us her own headscarf. She is talking a mile a minute. “Where you from? America? Welcome to Alaska!” Her English knows no fear.

“What is your name?” She asks and I tell her and ask hers.
“Hanna,” she says walking fast, tapping her chest. She asks me if I am married and checks out my hand for a ring. “Rambo.” She points to Michael. “He is papa familia?” Yes, I tell her, we are a family.

Earlier in the day a handsome young Egyptian, a waiter from the boat joined our tour of the tomb. He too asked me if I am married and how old I am. When I tell him my age, he switched gears. Do I have daughters? Are they married? Then, smiling he told me, he needed a girlfriend. An American girlfriend. He wants to come to America and he needs a girlfriend in order for him to get a job. I tell him, I can’t help him there. Maybe I have a friend? he smiles. I smile, too. But I don’t laugh at him. I have seen enough of the countryside to have seen the prospects for this tall, well spoken young man and beyond the cruise ship work, they are not good.

I slip Hanna a few Egyptian pounds, about equal to one dollar and ask her to show us to the Souk (marketplace). She leads the way and we turn left down a descending, rocky alley. No cars racing through this marketplace, just an occasional motorbike. Hanna has told me that she is 13 years old and she has no mama. She walks with quick sure strides in her bare feet, one of which has twisted toes. But that’s no impediment to her darting from shop to shop – trading shouts with shop keepers. She runs up to one open window selling cigarettes and small food items and I think she hides her money. Her hands are quick as a squirrel peeling acorns, so it’s hard to tell.

“Buy clothes for mama, here. Pharmacia. Clothes for Bebe. Telephono," she’s back at our elbows pointing out each shop with authority. The shopkeepers here are less outgoing, more suspicious of Rambo and his family, but they do smile back when we smile first. And when they see our guide is Hanna, they laugh and break into grins. Everyone seems to know her. She walks along shouting greetings and what appear to be joking insults at people. At one point an older man chastises her for not wearing shoes.

When a skirt on an outside rack catches my eye, we stop and ask the price. She runs to get a merchant from across the way to translate. Michael bargains and the price drops from 70 to 50 lbs. (from about $12 to $9) and everyone is happy. We walk away and she agrees, 50 lbs. “most. No more.” As we turn down another street we are in a different century. Except for electric lights, this is a crowded, dusty market from another time. The fruits and vegetables are not piled as high as in the city and people are all thin. In the USA, poor people tend to be overweight, here, no.
We see three trucks top heavy with young people – two trucks of boys and one of girls rocking around corners and heading out of town. They are happy and singing. Our guide tells us later this was most probably a wedding party. They wave and shout, “Hello,” in English.

A young man drops into our group to chat up Michael as we walk. He is rather well dressed in a windbreaker and jeans. Hanna whispers to me that he is a pick pocket. To watch Michael’s pocket. She is practically frantic. One time she saw this man take $400lb off of someone. I casually mention this to M and the young man drifts away, but not without giving Hanna the stink eye.

A well-groomed man in a caftan brushes by Hanna and makes a “phish” noise and I see her slip him the money we had given her and he banks into an alley. A little later I say to her, “That man took your money.” “Yes.” She is matter of fact. “I have no mama.” She holds both hands flat against her cheek, the universal sign of sleeping, “I sleep.”

After maybe 30 minutes of exploring this market NOT designed for tourists, it’s time to return to the ship. Most of the shops are closing at 9:30 on a Saturday night, but many people are still working. With raw tobacco piled high and treadle sewing machines in the clothing and shoe shops that smell of raw leather, donkey drawn carts driven by men and boys, we look around. Hanna guesses what we want, “go back to boat, this way.” And she points down a twisting alley. Frankly, it’s a little scary. But then, I’m game. After all, I’m traveling with Rambo, right? I jab Michael and he says, “I’m not so sure about this.” Neither one of us wants to be lead down a blind alley. But Hanna is reassuring, “this way to boat.”

We pass a collection of children on in a whitewashed doorway. Michael takes their picture while I make big smiles with a stern looking woman in an abaya across the path. She finally smiles. Cute kids. Who can resist? We both shrug. I wonder if it is an orphanage. All those toddlers together. Adoption is not considered proper in a Muslim country.

Another turn and we are on the river road, the boat a few football fields away. Time to bid good bye to Hanna and I press a 20lb ($4) note in her hand. To give a child like this too much money would be dangerous for her. 20 lbs may buy her a few nights sleep or meals for her and her friends, more than that and someone could break her like a twig to take it from her.

At first I had assumed the “no mama” line was a ruse, but now I’m thinking maybe it is true. What Muslim mama would let her precious daughter with the bright mind and gorgeous black eyes out in the marketplace to hang out alone with strangers from another country on Saturday night? Girls start to wear headscarves when they begin having their periods. At thirteen Hanna has a scarf, but whether it is her inexperience with the thing or the fact that it is the cheapest of polyester, it won’t stay put. With no mama to make sure her family apartment’s balcony is brightly painted to signify that a marriageable girl is living there, her dark skin and her twisted toes, Hanna’s marriage prospects may not be the best. What she has going for her is spunk and intelligence. I don’t understand the culture well enough to know if those are blessings or curses for a young woman of 13.

This picture of a painted balcony was taken from the boat. It is from a different, more properous village. The properity of the area is directly tied to how many tourist attracting ruins are around.

“This money is for you. You spend it on you. Do not give to that man.” I say as I press the bill into her palm. She nods. “For you.” I say. Our eyes lock. As I walk away, I can only hope that she is able to spend at least some of it before Fagan puts a clamp on her tip. Later our guide tells us that children like this are not allowed to work the streets alone, they all have to give 2/3 of what they collect to their bosses, a kind of local mafia.

But that night the reason I can’t sleep is not because of Hanna. Tonight at least, she has a place to sleep. The reason I can’t sleep is the face of the old man with skin the color and toughness of his dusty, fleshless horse. No teeth, his head in a sweat stained white turban who asked “please, please, one hour only,” for us to ride in his carriage and I said, no thank you. He was gaunt, his horse showing every bone. I can’t sleep wondering if he and the horse went to bed hungry and how much I really did not need that skirt.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Cairo American College

WHAT an experience. First of all, I can’t say enough nice things about the kids and the learning atmosphere. Everyone was engaged. Many thanks to Seamus and Therasa Marriott for inviting us. We are following him around the world, first Shanghai and now Cairo. The evening on his patio was a perfectly pleasant opportunity to get to know the elementary staff and share poems and stories. We owe him such a debt of gratitude not only for inviting us, but for helping us put together our cruise on the Nile.

Planning our visit with students at the elementary was the kind and cheerful Ann Coster and at the HS, Paul Bartos. I really feel like we made friends. The felluca sail on the Nile was such a relaxing respite. Special thanks to Ann for guiding me around shopping in her off hours, answering my cultural background questions and keeping me supplied with diet coke, a habit I really AM going to break one of these days. From changing our money to managing the parade of children to talking us down from the election, thanks to both of them for perfectly orchestrating the visit.

Thanks to all the moms who ran the book fair. Wow. I loved talking to all of you! Each and every one. Thank you for all your hard work.

And special thanks to Peter Duckett, who gamely escorted us to several dinners and market excursions, explaining the menus, the customs, the history and the bargaining. He walked us to school each morning and led our tired selves back to the apartment at night. He appointed the apartment with an impressive collection of books on Egypt from his private library, which helped fill our off hours (few) with more background on this ancient, dynamic society. AND he had a bottomless coffee pot going in the office at all times, a lifeline for the travel weary. Thanks to Peter and to his assistant, Shaima. She made sure we had some genuine Egyptian food for lunch and took care of all the details. Lots of details. Spreadsheets full of details. Thank you. Shakron. I'll be posting pictures later.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Cairo reflections

This is Cairo, its minarets, shops, horse drawn carts, bumper car traffic and children. Songs beckoning the faithful to prayer echo one another, each offering a different melodious voice. I never visited Baghdad before it was destroyed and tonight I wonder if it looked anything like this. Too much negative propaganda has been spread about the Muslim people. Here we are treated with routine respect, kindness, and smiles. Yes, the shop keepers want to take our money, some are pretty aggressive about it – just like tourist shops from New York to LA, but no where do people give change by slapping it on the counter or act rudely. People do their best to speak our language and everywhere, smiles.

No place is perfect and certainly Egypt is not. There are no safety nets here for children, people or animals. There is a lot of poverty, too few jobs. But one thing I wish everyone at home could see is that Muslims and Arabs are not at all evil – no way. At no time did I feel unsafe. Sentiments in the USA have become so twisted that even a checkered scarf on the cook-next-door Rachel Ray got the commercial pulled. Prejudice run crazy. That late night philosopher Bill Maher says that they don’t hate our freedom in the Middle East, they hate our cluster bombs. Too true. And who could blame anyone for that?

At 5:30AM on November 5 we heard horns honking and even a few shouts rang out as the election results were announced in the US. All through Cairo, when we were recognized as Americans, people say, “Obama!” with a thumbs up. The shop keepers whisper the name to us and smile. Obama. The name is like a password to instant friendship. Obama. Obama. Big smile.

Everyone is jubilant to see Bush & Co. step down. He does not understand, Shiama, a friend and secretary at the school, explains. Bush doesn’t realize how many innocent children and families he has killed looking for the few bad ones. Homes and lives destroyed. Neighborhoods just like the one I am looking out at from this balcony. People in Egypt are hopeful the new president will better understand.

This is another post 911 moment for us, I believe. Today the world is once again on our side. Waiting to see what the transition in government will bring. For now, the election has brought smiles, which seems like a good place to start.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The whole world is watching

The population of Cairo is 19 million at night and 23 million during the day -- it is a city on the move. We are half a world away from the US, but all anyone is talking about is the election. CNN is a different animal overseas -- truly world news. And tonight it is all the US election all the time. It will be 5AM here when the polls close in the USA -- so we will go to bed and wake up (hopefully) to a clear cut victory.

But today at school it was all about poetry for the students of Cairo American College. I got to talk to the elementary in two assemblies today, watch a first grade class perform a reader's theater rap, wrote with some middle schoolers, and Michael and I put on a model poetry slam outside for the HS.

Only in an international school do I have the privilege to talk to kids in pre-school through HS all in the same day. A student who interviewed me for the yearbook asked me what I like about my job today and I answered THAT is it -- I love the variety.

After school the elementary librarian Anne took me out to do some shopping and then we kicked back for an hour before joining elementary principal Seamus Marriott and his staff for elegant snacks and cold drinks on his spacious balcony overlooking the lights of Cairo. As we have from the first day we arrived, the conductor orchestrating our visit has been Peter Duckett. It was simply a beautiful day.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Monday is Tuesday

Well, since Sunday is the start of the school week in Cairo, today seemed like Tuesday, except it was Monday. Not another Manic Monday, but a smooth school day, take a cruise on the Nile, have a relaxing dinner Monday. A fifth grader asked me today, "what enthusiated you to write poetry?" What a great word. He is learning English in addition to his native tongue and when his classmates were quick tp point out his mistake, he just shrugged it off with an "oh, you know what I mean." And of course we all did. Everyone here is learning another language of some kind. We are learning please and thank you in Arabic and trying to get everyone thinking in the language of poetry.

The days are twirling, honking, smiling as we get to know people. I'm so tired I can't even think straight. I suggest you check out Michael's site for pictures of our sail and Frank's blog for pictures of his day at the school for Sudanese refugees.

As soon as we learn something new, another question pops up. Like did you ever wonder where those rag rugs in the store come from" These folks were working away at 9PM on a Sat. night on rag rugs. No 9-5 here.

In the same market, we saw long black abayas displayed right across the narrow market road from bare midriff belly dancing outfits. Kind on makes you wonder what's under those things, doesn't it? And some of the Egyptian teen-aged girls on the street who were dressed in long black robes (few are) have very tight T shirts in bright colors pulled on over the abaya. You just KNOW they didn't leave the house that way. Kind of the equivalent of rolling your skirt up after you left home and turned the corner when I was in HS. But overall, the teen dressing is MUCH more modest here, on the street, with girls dressing in long skirts or dresses over pants -- lots of creativity in the way they pull it all together as opposed to the classic uniform of jeans and sweatshirts. Whew -- time for bed!

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Sphinx and surrounds

Here she is. Cairo cat, tail curling under her lion's body. She's not flawless. And she has not, as they say, had work done. Not on her face anyway. They have rebuilt her paws, only practical. But in fact, no make up artist in the world could fix the damage to her noble face -- and yet people come from all over the world to look at her in awe. Stately. Knowing. She has seen it all. And looking at her, I want to ask thousands of questions, one for each year she has had her eyes trained on the desert. If history is prologue, do we dig into it simply for understanding? As in, whose shoulders are under us on which we are standing? Or there a hint of the future in studying the past?

The pyramids -- there are over 100.  Big. Huge.  School kids around the globe make models of these four sided wonders.  But how were the originals made without forklifts?  Without tractors?  Some say they built the sand up around them and rolled the 2-7 ton stones in place.  Some say it was aliens.  How many died in their construction we can only guess.  

The picture of the man whose task it is to guard the entry of the empty tomb puts the size of the stones in perspective. These were mined from a quarry across the Nile, brought by barge and rolled on logs into positions over decades to erect the pyramid. Beside the great pyramid are smaller ones for several of the Pharaoh's wives. Below are Michael, Frank and me posing in the mummification temple located at beside the pyramid.

Outside the entry (I did not go in, asthma and a twinge of claustrophopia) instead opting to take pictures of Frank and Michael as they join a school group on their steep descent into the empty tomb. Beside the pyramids were the usual collection of vendors hawking small models and stuffed camels. One man gently caught my elbow as I walked past. I am used to shaking off vendors, so I kept walking until he said, "Obama." I looked down. I was wearing a campaign button. He put a thumbs up. "Obama." I replied. "Barook Obama." He said smiling. "Barrack." I said. "No Jack," he said. "Obama." We were in agreement. Egypt is the strongest democracy in the Middle East, a long standing ally of the US. Here, as all over the world, people are watching our election process carefully. The peaceful transition of power. The history of yesterday and the history that is being made on Tuesday all coming together as two strangers touch hands and exchange smiles.

The final photo is of Michael sitting outside the Museum of Antiquities in front of another Sphinx. Turns out there are lots of them. This is not a model, though smaller than her sister in the desert, this ol' girl is also thousands of years old.  

Saturday, November 01, 2008


The trip was seamless -- Cleveland to Newark to Rome to Cairo.  Just like we knew the way by heart.  We were greeted at the airport by smiles and a welcome sign and then wisked off to (can you believe it?) to a Halloween festival at the school.  Today we toured the great pyramids and Sphinx and Cairo museum followed by a winding, wild ride through Cairo marketplace.  Frank almost became a hood ornament, but other than that, it was all fascinating.  

I have so much to write about, but it is later than I want to think about and we get to meet the students first thing in the morning, which is the most exciting of all. So, a couple more pictures and off to wash the dust off and to bed.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Virginia Association of Teachers of English VATE

The drive from Purcellville to Roanoke is peaceful with crooked fingers of The Blue Ridge Parkway tempting drivers to turn off the main drag and swirl through the rolling mountains ablaze in fall color.  The VATE conference was well orchestrated highlighted by a wonderful presentation by a student performance group doing Suesical (spelling?).

On Sunday morning it was my turn to speak at the breakfast and Sandra Whitaker gave me the most beautiful introduction, part of which I am sharing below.  I'm not sure if this is a copyright violation, but she was kind enough to give me a copy so here goes.  Since I also knew that the next day she would be defending her dissertation, it was even double, triple touching that she took time to write this beautiful prose.

"Performance poetry has its own special kind of magic.  As words hand in the air, begging to touch the soul, the poet and the audience linger in a space between being and becoming.  when words break past our defenses, tingle our senses and move our spirits, we change, seeing reality  through a different lens or in a new way."  She oh so kindly credited me with lending a hand in helping students and teachers "unleash the poet within, and to use performance poetry as a powerful way to understand academic concepts and the richness of life.  When children as her why she is teaching poetry , she says (and I do), "Because someday you will need it.  I can't tell you when, but you will."

Sandra writes that "poetry is truth"  affirming with her hard earned PhD and wise words what I have always felt, that the overwhelming majority of poetry is non-fiction.  "The funny encounters, the heartbreaks, the tragic losses, and the blessings . . . poems (and blogs) are a testament to how much the soul needs poetry."  That it "isn't the state standards, or lack thereof, that make us need poetry.  It isn't  that old dusty books of poetry reside in many of our personal libraries.  We need poetry because it is through poetry that we express what we can't say, that we shed the tears our eyes won't cry, and that we dance life's rhythms without tripping over our own feet . . . [Poetry] reveals our darkest secrets veiled in universal truth.  It is the common thread weaving together all of time and place, uttering what we dared not say, giving voice to the human experience."  Where upon she quoted from my poem "If I were a Poem" and handed me the mike.

Follow that!  It was such a beautiful piece of writing, I wanted to just sit down and digest rather than talk.  Thank you so much for filling my heart with words of poetry put into paragraphs Sandy.  And thanks to Brent for lending his voice to a performance of a poem for two voices and to all the teachers who warm smiles and hugs welcomed me back to VA.  And I came home with a rock from Tinker's Creek in hand and poetic words in my heart.  

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Tight End Poet Number 37

Here's what I know about football: Someone shouts out a number, another guy hikes the ball, and then everyone either makes a break for it or they fall in a pile. They get four chances to score and then they have to turn over the ball and let the other team have a chance to break for the goal. That's the sum total of what I know. Mostly I have always felt that football was invented to keep the men folk occupied on Sundays so that I had that time to myself, which is the sole source of any warm feelings that may have visited my heart over the oh so many football seasons of my life.

That was up until Ben put on pads, and there I was last week, under the lights at Fireman's Field in Purcellville, VA (and a quilt) trying to learn what exactly a tight end does. Exactly. Which definitely puts me in the category of being not smarter than a third grader, because all those guys seemed to know exactly what they were doing and who they were supposed to hit when. Impressive. Ben's team didn't chalk up a win because of the (are you kidding me?) passing game of the other team, but they fought right up to the horn blasting in the fall air.
So, what do you think?
Can a tight end make a pencil point conversion and write poetry? Can a clear eye and determination on the field translate into words on a page at school the next day? Yeppers. Look at ol' 37 as he bends into his writing, creating a Swirl of a poem.

This was the first time I ever tried writing definition poems with a third grade class -- and they were so great. I learned that a swirl is not cardboard or a straight line and that teeth can't grow hair. Working from their vocabulary words for the week, conferring with partners, co-composing, and writing on their own, the whole class teamed up to make some pretty cool poetry.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

KSRA Poetry Around

As Michael and I were driving to Keystone State Reading Association this week, (well, let me amend that, as Michael was driving and I was taking in the colorful hills and valleys along the PA turnpike) anyway, while we were traversing the oh so long state of PA, I tried to count how many times I have attended this meeting since 1991.  It was definitely one of the first teacher conferences I ever attended.  Can't remember.  Lots of times.  What I have no trouble remembering are the fine friends and poets I have had the honor to hang out with during the meetings and at the evening poetry around

One of the best is Will Mowery who this year read lively, insightful tidbits from his writer's notebook.  Michael also pitched in with a few poems.  Will says that the important thing about poetry for kids is that a good poem always requires inference.

The event has been better attended in past years, but this time most of the teachers were commuting, the creaking economy has his both teachers and school professional development budgets hard.  Attendance at teacher conferences is down in general.   Hopefully this will change next year when KSRA returns to its old home in Hershey.  Here's hopin'.

Meantime, I appreciate the opportunity to connect with old friends, meet new ones, and share good words.  The importance of teacher conferences can't be overstated -- it's a place to learn new ideas and feed the spirit, both benefits of equal import.  

Oh, and on a different note, congratulations to Mary Ann Hoberman who has just replace Jack Prelutsky as the children's poet laureate.  Who even knew there was such a thing?  News to me.  But still -- cool beans.  She's a fine choice.  

Friday, October 17, 2008

Where do you find the words? Black River Schools

The question came during magic time, the final question and answer session after the assembly. Good question! Sometimes I can find the words and other times they tumble around in my head and refuse to commit themselves to paper. Other times the words seem to have sleeping sickness and are too lazy to even attempt to kick it around on the page. Which is kind of where I have been lately. The best cure I can think of for not writing is to write -- which I did -- right along with the students at Black River elementary and middle schools this week.

The second day I was there another student asked if I had ever written a poem about bullies. I told him that, funny you should ask, but in fact I was working on one right here -- and held up a piece of paper with words jumping and skidding all over it. What inspired me to write? Joining a writing community and that simple directive, "we'll just write now for about 5 minutes. I invariably stretch this five minute promise to at least 10 -- just enough time for all of us to get something down on paper.

As we head into the weekend and beyond, as this week starts to puddle into last and the week before, as the sharp edges of our memories begin to fade -- none of us will go forward empty handed. Thanks to Principal Tammy Starkey -- it was great working with you again -- and thanks to the kids in Black River for welcoming me into their writing community.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Bountiful Harvest

Arms full of basil, red, yellow, and green peppers. Tomatoes of all shapes and sizes. Lettuce and even some banana peppers. A few choice strawberries and lots of flowers. And the only fertilizer used came from worm castings. I'm not quite ready to enter the county fair, but this labor of love netted some fine eating this summer. Here I am with almost the final harvest, though I'm still pulling a tomato or two a day. I put up 24 freezer bags of pesto and we have had abundant salads.

Already I am planning next summer and how I can rearrange rows so that the spinach doesn't get so leggy and that the tomatoes get more sun and I want to put in more peppers so that we can stuff more with that yummy rice concoction we came up with and put them in the freezer.

All last week I was obsessed with the economy in free fall. I wrung my hands and spent waaaay too many hours watching growth charts plummeting like pelicans, hoping the next economist they put on the panel would have one positive thing to say. Not one did. The campaign kept getting nastier. The news was just bad all around, but I couldn't take my eyes off of it. And I twisted my knee, which didn't help my mood or my ability to walk off my anxiety. Even when I turned off the flat screen fear machine to escape into fiction, it was bad news. Reading a fictionalized biography of Nefertiti (in anticipation of the big trip to Cairo) wouldn't you know the court of Egypt came down with the plague and four of the six of Pharaoh's kids died. I know it is a few thousand years late to feel bad for them, but I did. I was just feeling bad all 'round.

Here's what I almost forgot. I forgot this picture that Michael had snapped the week before. That these cool breezes that will ultimately be followed by warm ones -- and another planting season.

'Course next year I may be planting with a little more sense of urgency if the economy doesn't turn around, but it's comforting to know that Mother Nature and the worm bins in the basement have our back.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Anatomy of a speech

Missouri Reading Association is a warm, inviting event. Michael and I are on the docket to do the kick off keynote. Tick Tick the Clock. Teachers filing into the ballroom. And I race to make one more change. Michael (owner of the watch) says to let it go, but I know that in the face of the hotel coffee that can't stand up for itself and the unfortunate ballroom carpet that if I don't make this last change, all will be lost. It is a matter of extreme urgency that I adjust the program with 7 minutes to show time. I have to. I must. Or else.

Or else what?

OR ELSE! You know. The world as we know it will end, the stock market will crash, and a you betcha chick with a come hither wink will be nominated for Vice President.

Oh, wait a minute. I made the change, we began on time and all those things happened anyway.

Oh well. You never know.

The coolest thing about this event was really the next morning when Smokey Daniels had all the teachers write down their ideas on what we should do to improve education and then divided the letters into two piles and then into two envelops to be mailed to the Obama and McCain campains. You never saw a ballroom of teachers scribble faster and with more intensity in your life. Any other time I might have thought that it was simply the astigmatic anxiety oozing up from the carpet that had them wound up, but there was no doubting the genuine passion of the teachers as they put their ideas down on paper.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Off the Books

Yesterday a big Yellow Freight delivery truck (way big) pulled up in front of the house and the nice delivery man wanted to drop off two pallets of books, (value $80,000). In fact, all I was supposed to receive were 3 text books. I’m not certain of the value of these books, but a fair market price would be $90, or about $30 a piece.

Wow. $80,000 worth of books. My neighbor is standing outside and says, “wahoo. garage sale.”

"Nah." I say. "I really only have rights to $90 in books."

But, my imagination takes off. She's so right. In fact, if you break these pallets of books up and sell them individually, a conservative estimate of the books’ value would be $112,000 (with the standard 40% mark up).

She leaves for work and I decide it wouldn’t be fair for me to actually sell the books, they aren’t mine. But I can act like the big boys, I can take a loan out against this asset I am holding just like the bank takes out loans on other people's savings accounts. That's not theirs either. Since I am holding the books on pallets in my driveway, I go to the local bank and take out a loan against this asset. The banker makes commissions on the size of the loan, not on my ability to pay the loan back so he says, “that’s a Class A asset, you have the books in your possession. When are you planning this garage sale?”

“Dunno.” I answer, honestly. "I don't actually own the books. I'm kind of book sitting."

“That’s okay,” says Mr. Banker. “If you did own the books, you think you can unload them in say 5 years?”

“Sure.” I answer, thinking five years is a long time and heck, it’s only 500 lbs of books. That’s only 100 lbs a year, that would be reasonable. If the books were mine. My neighbor would help and we'd all make out.

Kewl,” says the banker. “Tell you what, I’m going to loan you $150,000 on those books because the price of books is going up and you’d probably be able to sell them for more than you are thinking. You just pay us a little every month on the interest.” Mr. Banker gets a healthy commission and I have $150,000 in my checking account. Meantime, by this time the shipper has realized its mistake and collected the books.

But I'm so excited, I pay bonus’ to my cats and dogs and still have lots left over. I go to Bank B. I say, look I'm rich. I have all this cash. I want to borrow money for a boat and a car and some new shoes. Bank B extends these loans to me by borrowing against my neighbor’s savings.

Meantime, Bank A takes my loan and places a mature value on the loan of $500,000 (asset plus interest for 5 years). Bank A bundles my loan with a bunch of other people’s loans on temporary assets sitting in driveways around town and wow, that adds up to say, $5 million. So, they take these dollars and buy stock in the company of my neighbor’s employer.

After they have purchased a lot of this stock, at first it drives up the price. Then people start to spread rumors that the stock really isn’t worth so much, so Bank A goes back into the market and bets that the stock will fall. Banks B and C see what Bank A is up to and even though they don’t really own any shares of this stock, they decide to bet that the stock will fall, too. The stock falls. The bets pay off. They pay big bonuses to the traders.

Time passes. I answer the phone and it’s the bank. “You know that loan?”


“It’s time to pay up.”

Mmmm. I spent the money. And I have all these other loans I took out using the money you gave me as collateral, and I’m a little over extended.”

“Uh oh. We're over extended, too. Oh, well, time for that garage sale. Just sell those books you used to secure the loan.”

“Well, I didn’t really OWN those books. I told you that. They were just parked in my driveway.”


“And, they’re like, gone. You know. You want to take back the shoes?”

“Shoes are a depreciating asset. You owe us $500,000.”

“I thought I owed you $150,000.”

“That was before we sold the loan as a derivative asset for $500,000 to Bank B and they used that as collateral for this $5 million loan we took out to buy stock in your neighbor’s employer.”

So, my neighbor loses her job because her company can't make payroll. The banks have cut off the company’s credit because the stock fell. She goes to her savings account to take money out to pay her house payment, car payment and for her kid’s braces and her bank says, “not only can we not give you your money because we used it for collateral and loaned too much money to the lady with the books in her driveway. BTW, would you mind chipping in to pay for the losses on her books?”

My neighbor is a little annoyed but says, “$90? Sure, I’ll chip in. She’s good for it. Can I have my money now?”

“Not exactly,” says the bank. We need you to chip in at least $500,000 for her and we might as well clean up all this other debt, too. Can we have $5 million to recapitalize the bank? Come to think of it, we may need $6 million. All those bonus’ and commissions, you know. Don't ask me to explain how this happened, I don't understand it myself. Very complicated. Everybody's going to have to pitch in and if you don’t? This is a very fragile situation. You’ll never get another job or be able to pay for those braces for your kid.”

“Wait a minute!” My neighbor is extremely annoyed now. "You loaned her $500,000 on a $90 asset? Are you nuts?"

"She's irresponsible. What can we say. We actually only loaned her $150,000. But that's beside the point. That debt is now up to $500,000 and we need your help. It's too complicated for you to understand."

"Understand this. I’m unemployed. And you want me to pay $6 million dollars for an asset that’s worth $90? There ain't a garage sale in the world gonna make that kinda money.”

This entire scenario flashes through my mind as I explain to the Yellow Freight delivery guy that he has to take the books back.

My neighbor keeps guns in the house.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Spot the difference?

"Business or leisure?"
The question appears on every country's entry form, and you have to choose. One or the other. Walking through an airport it is easy to pick out the strictly leisure types, cameras around necks, Hawaiian shirts and flip flops walking through O'Hare in January. It used to be easy to spot the business types -- suits and ties or the classic khakis and blue sport coats (male and female versions). But today's leisure traveler is just as likely to be hauling a computer case as the business traveler is to be clutching a Fodor's guide. Whether it is the proliferation of home offices or the invasion of the gen-x "I don't need no stinkin' suit" mentality, the travel world is a different place than it was in the eighties when I took my first trip overseas.

One thing that has also changed are the ubiquitous examples of bad translations. T shirts splashed with English saying like "sports is happy time" or my personal favorite from a coffee mug I purchased in Tokyo years ago, "Various types of dogs are here, let's play with us!" Was that supposed to say Dogs are Fun? Dogs! Let's play! Who knows. Translators (like the rest of us) have become a bit more worldly and these one liners are getting more scarce.

I snapped the picture above in the Kuala Lumpur airport and found it in my picture sorting. One can only hope this is a bad translation and should really read "a business advantage" rather than an "unfair business advantage." But I have to say, it is that "unfair" business rubric that gets me sputtering whenever I hear someone saying we need to reform schools on a business model. Really. The Enron business model? The hedge fund business model? I used to cite the savings and loan crisis but that is so many corporate disasters ago that it is fading into a vanishing point. I once worked at a big, healthy law firm whose main task was save the corporate hides of businesses in trouble -- and that law firm is one of MANY.

Is playing fair the stuff of picture books? Pure fiction? Or is it an aspiration? If so, then the business world could take some lessons from schools.

Now, the fact that our schools are so disparate in resources, that's truly unfair. But it's going to take more than a "business model" to fix that -- especially as advertised.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Death of a Loved One Day 115

Lists of reasons to not write are long, most of them written by people on deadline. This past week, in order to avoid doing my work (writing) I cleaned out folders on my computer and finally (this is really digging deep) the supply closet in my office. Stuck in here and there among the dusty old floppy discs and transparencies were pictures of Stephie, pictures hastily filed in the closet when new ones arrived. There was always an endless supply. I didn't intend to invest hours grieving this week. I intended to work. Pictures are loose boards on the bridge of intentions.

Cleaning up computer files is less dusty work. Move. Delete. Make New Folder. Delete. Delete. That's the easy part. The time consuming part is looking through the pictures. It's like trying to walk holding hands with a toddler -- you want to go one way but you're getting tugged in a million directions. What I relish in these family photos are the smiles, the open eyed, pure happy, sometimes toothless, sometimes covered in frosting, smiles.

A friend wrote a bit ago to express belated condolences and I told him the problem with losing a child in the family is that we love them with such reckless abandon, holding nothing back. Kissing their toes, sniffing their necks while we hug them until they almost pop. (Exactly the same parent/grandparent behavior that drives kids crazy). An investment that is guaranteed not to bottom out.

Until one day, the missing board. The water rushing beneath. The sharp intake of breath as you catch yourself and try to not fall into that hole. And you remind yourself that others have suffered worse losses, whole families have been sucked into nothingness. You remind yourself of all that is good and hang onto the railing, stepping very carefully.

Our family photos taken this past summer still show us smiling for the camera -- at the pool, at the birthday party. But something has seriously changed about everyone's eyes. Each and every pair of them. Less giddy. More watchful.